TTIP: what can we expect from 2016?

2015 saw the campaign against TTIP grow into a mass movement of opposition across Europe. John Hilary asks whether 2016 could be the year we defeat TTIP and build a People’s Europe from below.

John Hilary
15 January 2016

2015 was an incredible year in the fight against TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership being negotiated in secret between the European Commission and the US government. The pan-European campaign grew exponentially as more and more people learned about the threats posed by the deal, culminating in October’s staggering anti-TTIP demonstration in Berlin. In the space of one year, over 3.2 million people signed the European Citizens’ Initiative against TTIP and the EU-Canada deal CETA, far and away the largest number ever recorded for such a petition.

Parliamentary inquiries and academic studies published during 2015 began to draw out the full range of dangers that TTIP poses to social standards, public services and environmental integrity. ‘No TTIP’ campaigns were launched in every EU country at thousands of local meetings, rallies and seminars, and hundreds of municipalities across Europe declared themselves TTIP-free zones. As a result of sustained pressure from British activists, Labour MEPs switched sides to vote against the pro-TTIP resolution brought before the European Parliament. Advocates of TTIP admitted they had lost the public debate.

The UK parliamentary debate on TTIP that took place at the end of 2015 showed how successful the campaign has been in raising awareness there too. MPs from across the political spectrum spoke out against TTIP, rejecting the UK government’s claim that public services will somehow be safeguarded in the deal. The UK government has already used the ‘positive list’ system to commit our health services (including hospitals) to TTIP, and has refused to retract that commitment. Education, rail, water, sewerage, post and cultural services are also on the table to be traded away.

The other main point of contention in parliament was the outrageous investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) proposed under TTIP that will allow US corporations to sue European countries for future loss of profits if they feel their interests have been damaged by the introduction of new regulations or laws. Despite some MPs still mistakenly saying that the UK has never yet lost an ISDS case, speakers showed a far higher level of understanding than in previous debates of the true threat from these corporate courts. In particular, MPs recognised that the investment court system now proposed by the European Commission to ‘replace’ ISDS is nothing more than a cosmetic rebranding that keeps all its essential features intact. This is an important rejoinder to those who would pretend that the Commission’s reform proposal has resolved the issue.

So what can we expect from 2016? TTIP negotiations continue, as the two sides failed to meet their goal of concluding talks by the end of 2015. EU and US negotiators now hope to reach a final political settlement by the end of Obama’s presidency in January 2017, thus making the next 12 months vitally important in the fight to derail the talks. The next round of negotiations is set to take place in Brussels at the end of February, and top of the agenda will be government procurement: the contracts awarded to outside companies by local or national government. This is a massive market that big business wants to crack on both sides of the Atlantic, and opening it up to TTIP is a major threat to local democracy, as many progressive conditions set by local councils risk falling foul of the principles of ‘free trade’.

The biggest landmark of 2016 could come with the process to ratify CETA, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between Canada and the EU that is seen as a ‘dry run’ for TTIP, not least because it also contains ISDS. Negotiations on this treaty were formally concluded in September 2014, and the text is now going through a process of ‘legal scrubbing’ and translation into the 24 official languages of the EU. Fully 80 per cent of all US companies operating in Europe have offices in Canada, so they will be able to use the ISDS provisions of CETA to sue us without waiting for TTIP to be finalised. The new Canadian government elected last October has signalled that it is happy to sign CETA, so it will be up to us to defeat it when it comes up for ratification by the European Parliament in the latter part of this year.

Even if we do defeat TTIP and CETA, the bigger question is how we can move to a situation where we are not always on the defensive, fighting off the EU’s free trade deals one after the next. How can we move onto the front foot and start building a set of new European institutions that put our needs and the needs of the planet ahead of the interests of big business? For those of us in the UK, this is the question we will be asked in the EU referendum expected during the coming year.

After its brutal treatment of the Greek people during 2015, no one on the Left considers the EU to be anything other than an anti-democratic autocracy committed to permanent austerity, whatever the human cost. So the question is simple. Do we believe that there is any chance of reforming the institutions of the EU so that they genuinely represent the peoples of Europe? Or if we’re honest with ourselves, aren’t those institutions irrevocably committed to the interests of transnational capital, as shown by their promotion of TTIP, CETA and the EU’s other free trade deals?

Our experience of fighting the EU’s free trade agenda over the past 20 years has shown that there is no hope of the radical reform necessary to turn the EU around. I am proud to be a European, but the time has now come to build a People’s Europe from below to challenge the nightmare vision imposed from above. Voting to stay in the EU means voting for the eternal recurrence of TTIP and CETA: however many times we defeat them, they will just come back again in a new guise. Only a rupture with the institutions of the EU offers any hope of a new beginning.

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